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The First Crusade

Posted in History, Religion on Friday, 29 June 2007

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Peter the Hermit (artwork, illustration, picture: Gerry Embleton)

From the earliest centuries of Christianity, Palestine had been the goal of pilgrims from the West. Jerusalem fell into the hands of Arab Moslems in the 7th century, but there continued a spirit of tolerance between them and the thousands of pilgrims who annually flooded into the city. The pilgrims needed to be fed, transported and housed, and the Arabs in Jerusalem drew a comfortable income from the provision of these humdrum needs.

Then, in the late 9th century, the Turks, Moslems themselves, drove out the Arabs and a new era began. Fiercer and more fanatical than their predecessors, the Turks destroyed the profitable tolerance that had existed. Persecution and extortion began and returning pilgrims brought bitter tales of the indignities to which they had been subjected.

One of these pilgrims was a man known simply as Peter the Hermit. He had been born in France and had adopted the life of a hermit. Physically, he was remarkably unattractive — a deformed dwarf with a great tangled beard, clad in filthy rags. In the eyes of most, he more closely resembled one of the twisted, stunted dwarfs of legend than a human being. But he also possessed a remarkable gift of eloquence.

Until his return to France from Palestine, Peter was largely unknown. He would have remained in obscurity had his path not crossed that of another and greater man, Pope Urban II, who had determined to raise an expeditionary force for the recovery of the holy places of Palestine.

Urban was both politician and priest — an honest man and an astute one, with much experience of the control of men. In a great Council at Clermont in France he put his proposal forward in November 1095: a large Christian army should be recruited in Europe and should leave in August the following year. His speech created great enthusiasm and the Council dispersed to work out the details.

But Peter the Hermit moved ahead of the Council. He saw himself as the voice of God and began a tireless round of preaching. So dominant did he become that later generations completely forgot the sober work of the Pope and placed the credit for the first Crusade entirely to the fanatical hermit. The stunted, filthy figure on a tiny donkey became familiar throughout France. Most of his hearers lived out their lives within a few miles of their birthplaces. Few had ever been into a large town: Palestine might have been on another planet. Into their dull, constricted lives erupted this ludicrous figure with the golden tongue, bringing to them news of the suffering of their brethren in Jerusalem, of the insult offered to their God, urging them to abandon everything then and there and go on Crusade. The Lord would provide.

They gathered in their thousands, not waiting for the support of the professional fighting men who were making their own, slower, preparations. In a vast, uncontrollable mob they followed Peter across Europe and went down to Palestine to defeat and death, their bones whitening under the Syrian sun: a monument to one man’s eloquence.

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